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Why did Yeezy Season 3 reference the Rwandan genocide?

Examining the accusations that Kanye West’s latest performance exploited a brutal moment in history to sell trainers

Last week, over 20 million people apparently watched a livestream of Kanye West’s latest fashion offering, Yeezy Season 3, with his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, serving as the soundtrack. More tuned in from cinemas across the world, while an additional 18,000 witnessed the colossal spectacle live in New York’s Madison Square Garden, marking the occasion as West’s most far-reaching show to date. The unlikely inspiration behind this cataclysmic event (tweeted by West himself) was recently credited to a 20-year-old image taken by British photographer Paul Lowe, depicting a Rwandan refugee camp one day after a huge massacre led by Tutsi soldiers. 

The event certainly took visual cues from this harrowing photograph, with hundreds of mostly street cast models huddled in the centre of the stadium, clothed in hues of red, brown and grey, notably glum and stoic, amidst a hazy apocalyptic installation. But a question remains – why did the rapper take inspiration and seek to replicate such an awful moment in Rwandan history for a fashion show? And why haven’t we heard anything from the artist on the subject before the presentation and since? At the time of publication, a request sent to his press team for clarification has been unanswered. 

Speaking to Time magazine, Lowe was enthusiastic about the use of his image. “If people want to find things in my work that is relevant and useful to contemporary issues and contemporary politics, that’s great,” he said. “And the fact that an image that is 20 years old can still resonate today is indicative that there’s still a lot to do.” However, it’s very unclear what contemporary issues and politics West was pointing to with his work, if any. Contextual information, a clear explanation or even a series of tweets on the picture are not to be found.

It’s worrying that a participant in the show was told, alongside other models, that the theme was “channelling a Rwandan refugee camp”. It’s a bizarre demand that condenses such an awful historical moment into a ‘look’ and lends a sour undertone to something that was positive about the show – casting mainly people of colour for this collection – especially with there being no real explanation as to why they needed to ‘embody’ refugees, and to what effect.

Bearing in mind the scope of West’s audience, the show could have acted as the perfect platform to encourage discussion about an often-overlooked moment in the world’s (relatively recent) history, in whatever capacity relevant to his potential connection to the region or his interest in that period. There was most definitely space to point to the global refugee crisis – one of the most pressing issues of our time. With no justification to the contrary, it appears as though suffering was glamourised for an aesthetic, as if Lowe’s photo was only good for providing a colour palette and some atmospheric inspiration.

In fairness, West and his wife Kim have sought to raise awareness about genocide before, with West performing a free concert in Armenia while the pair toured the country in a bid to heighten understanding about atrocities committed there at the turn of the 20th century. But this statement and trip was backed up with Kim Kardashian writing about the importance of acknowledging the past’s connection to the present. There was none of that here.

“Plucking an image from near obscurity, sticking it social media and using it to inspire a mammoth, commercially-motivated show without so much a word on the subject, is weak engagement with a brutal moment in African history”

The involvement of performance artist Vanessa Beecroft in creating the show should also be noted. Beecroft’s work itself is political – in 2007, for instance, she staged “VB61”, otherwise known as “Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?” which saw thirty Sudanese women lying face down on white canvas, their bodies blackened and streaked with red paint by the artist. It was “a graphic representation of the ongoing violent massacres in Africa… (and) a critique on the public’s desensitisation to brutality due to the mass dissemination of images of war and violence in the media”. This may be the case, but this wasn’t the Venice Biennale – Yeezy Season 3 was a fashion show sponsored by a global sportswear brand. 

Designers like Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss and Grace Wales Bonner continuously highlight the potential of the fashion space as a site for political and cultural engagement, whether that’s explicitly calling attention to the Black Lives Matter movement or bringing African cultural narratives to the fore. Even Beyoncé, a peer of similar influential standing, demonstrated the power of unashamedly celebrating blackness in her latest single Formation, with lyrics like “I like my negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils.”

Kanye West, a once politically-charged and critical voice in the industry, would seem like the ideal candidate for a similarly vocal approach on such matters – “Bush doesn’t care about black people” he blankly stated on live television in 2005, hitting out at the lack of help sent to victims of Hurricane Katrina. But plucking an image from near obscurity, sticking it social media and using it to inspire a mammoth, commercially-motivated show without so much a word on the subject, is weak engagement with a brutal moment in African history. West’s standing as a cultural innovator and one of the most forward-thinking artists of our generation is unquestionable, and his recent achievement is definitely one for the history books, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask more of him. A picture, apparently, is worth a thousand words; on this particular subject, it would be great if West said some.